NBA

Mike D’Antoni: How will Houston Rockets fare in Orlando?

NBA

Seven seconds or less. The most polarizing phrase to describe Mike D’Antoni’s head coaching career in the NBA. It all started for the offensive guru in Italy when he became the head coach for Milan in 1990 after a very successful playing career with the club including becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. He was part of five Italian League and two FIBA Euro league titles. D’Antoni’s style of offense was born once the NBA established the three-point line and he decided to ultimately take advantage of it. Mike D’Antoni had some ups and downs before really making a name for himself when then Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was intrigued by the success D’Antoni was having overseas with Benetton Treviso of Italy. D’Antoni was soon hired to be the Suns head coach after a tiny stint as an assistant and the rest was history. Now he’s in the midst of coaching one of the winningest organizations of the past five years in the Houston Rockets with arguably the deadliest backcourt the league has seen in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. 

His tactical and strategic offense is really based upon a couple of factors; an elite ball-handler who is usually the best player on the floor, shooters on the perimeter regardless if they’re 3-D or not, and a heavy dose of pick and roll. The ball handler benefits from the pick and roll because it puts him in a position to either drive to create his own shot or draw the defense in and kick it out to the rolling big man or perimeter shooters. D’Antoni’s offenses have always been up there with the NBA’s league leaders in three-point attempts and makes as the “seven seconds or less” label of D’Antoni’s offense is just a way of showing how up-tempo and fast his offense is through his blueprint and vision. 

When the Sun’s signed All-Star point guard Steve Nash in the offseason of 2004, D’Antoni’s offense took off and so did the Suns’ organization. Even prior to the signing of Nash, D’Antoni was brought in as an assistant under Frank Johnson in 2002. In that same season, their team consisted of flashy superstar point guard Stephon Marbury, freakishly athletic star Amare Stoudamire, three-level score first guard Joe Johnson, 3-D threat star Shawn Marion, and an aging injury-plagued Penny Hardaway. The eighth-seeded Suns that year battled the future champ San Antonio Spurs to six games despite an up and down season.

The very next season, Frank Johnson was fired and Mike D’Antoni was given a chance. Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury were traded in the offseason in order to free space to sign Nash and they added swingman three-point shooter specialist Quentin Richardson. Steve Nash was given the keys to D’Antoni’s offense and spread everyone out. Nash and Stoudamire’s time together led to the evolution of the pick and roll like John Stockton/Karl Malone, but they brought it up a notch. Nash’s incredible vision, Stoudamire’s will to score at the rim, elite shooting surrounding them with Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Leonardo Barbosa all on the wing made the Suns one of the deadliest offenses the league has seen and that’s kudos to the offensive guru that D’Antoni was and still is. Those Suns’ made numerous playoff appearances led by D’Antoni and Nash, but injury woes slowed them down as well as the other Western Conference foes such as the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks. But with D’Antoni basically duplicating what he had in the past in Phoenix, what are we to expect in the postseason from the Houston Rockets in year one of the Russell Westbrook experiment.

The Rockets had quite an interesting regular season until the season was halted by the coronavirus, including James Harden’s historic scoring tear to begin the season where he started to flirt with the idea of averaging 40 points a night, Russell Westbrook’s turning the corner in December and flashes of his old MVP form, and the shocking trade of big man Clint Capela. Capela was a vital piece of past Rocket’s playoff runs playing pick and roll with Harden and ex Rocket Chris Paul and cleaning up under the basket.

When the Rockets first traded for Westbrook, many doubted his ability to play off-ball with Harden as he’s not particularly the most ideal fit for D’Antoni’s live and die by the three mindset. Westbrook, though, was trying to adapt in the D’Antoni/Morey ball culture at first, attempting 5.8 three’s a game within the team’s first 15 games. Westbrook has never been lights out from three-point land and more likely than not, won’t ever be. The thing with Westbrook and how D’Antoni has tailored his team to his player’s strengths is that with Capela now in Atlanta, the lanes have completely opened for the 2017 MVP unlike before during his Thunder tenure with guys like Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka clogging the paint.

Even back in their Thunder days, Harden used to come off the bench and would run the offense through him as [Kevin] Durant and Westbrook played off him because of his elite playmaking in pick and roll situations. Even after Harden’s departure in 2013 Westbrook didn’t have the luxury of being surrounded by shooters but had to rely on pick and roll in order to attack the lane after space had been created. Now in small ball Houston, Westbrook no longer has to stay planted on the perimeter without ball playing off of Harden’s isolations. He can cut to the rim with more room to operate and have an easier time catching and going one on one when Harden draws more than one defender his way like he’s typically been defended all year. D’Antoni goes so small that he finds opposing big men having to defend Westbrook and that the biggest mismatch if the Brodie has the ball in his hands.

It’s not a shock Westbrook was averaging 27 points a game which is the highest since he took home MVP honors in 2017 and was shooting a career-high from the floor at 47%. Westbrook is still a nuclear athletic player at 31 years old and it’s very rare you find someone who can stay in front of him especially in the open court. What D’Antoni accomplished with Westbrook is that now the team is not only built to cater to not just James Harden but Westbrook as well. The thing that has always haunted Westbrook has been his shot selection and inefficiency, but with D’Antoni running the show, it’s going to be very interesting to see how dangerous Westbrook can be in the postseason if he continues to find those same opportunities in the lane. 

D’Antoni’s Rockets of today resemble his Suns of old, but will the flame burn out as fast as it has in the past? James Harden does play the primarily ball handler role like Nash did and possesses similar passing qualities as the Beard is always amongst the league leaders in assists. Harden is already one of the best scorers to ever play the game and his poetry in motion scoring ability through floaters, three-point shooting, step-backs, and free throw shooting is what will have to take this team the distance.

Even with Harden on the bench, two-time assist champ Westbrook is just as deadly getting others involved with shooters surrounding him. 3-D threats like P.J Tucker, Robert Covington, Danuel House are all mirroring images of the role Shawn Marion played as well as providing three-point shooting just like Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson did.

The Rockets also just signed swingman Luc Mbah Moute so they’re only bolstering their versatility and wing play. Rebounding and height are the team’s biggest Achilles heel, but at the end of the day you can’t buy rebounds, you earn them with heart. Especially with arguably the greatest rebounding guard in NBA history in Westbrook. Just like D’Antoni’s old teams that could go cold shooting or couldn’t find a way to stop an opposing team, what will the Rockets do when their seven seconds are up?

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